You may know Mark Bittman best as the appealingly immodest guy behind the How to Cook Everything cookbook juggernaut (How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition), How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, The Best Recipes in the World). Despite their heft, his cookbooks are terrifically approachable, with simple, easy-to-read recipes built around master plans. The whole goal? Empowering readers — even those who literally do not know how to boil water — to get into the kitchen and take charge of dinner.
Bittman is also the author of the long-running and popular New York Times food column "The Minimalist" and an associated blog, Bitten. He’s a frequent guest on the “Today” show and recently toured Iberia with the likes of Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow for a PBS show on Spanish food. He’s a celebrity chef (albeit with no formal training) as well as something vaguer and more powerful: a food celebrity.
What you may not know about Bittman, though, is that he didn’t set out to become The Guy Who Reformed The American Kitchen. In fact, his first book — the little-known and plainly titled Fish — was nothing more than a straightforward (if thoroughly comprehensive) book about, well, cooking fish.
Fifteen years later, is Bittman going to update the book for a new audience? No. As he told the New York Observer late in 2008, Bittman “cannot update Fish because so many of the 70 species he wrote about have since disappeared.”
Instead, Bittman wrote a slender volume with the doublespeak title of Food Matters. Like the earlier and similar Grub, Food Matters is two books in one: half cookbook, half manifesto. Both halves are meant to make a whole sandwich: the chewy gristle of how our food system is destroying the planet slapped next to the crunchy green of guilt-free recipes.
Bittman’s goals in Food Matters are summed up on the book’s cover: “Lose Weight, Heal the Planet.” The losing-weight part is a classic dieting saga — in this case, Bittman’s own personal journey of slimming by cutting back on animal products and junk food and embracing more whole grains and produce. The healing-the-planet part is the book’s political angle — in this case, Bittman’s call to readers to follow his dietary example and thereby reduce the damage caused to the planet by our current system of intensive animal husbandry.
Critics have noted that Food Matters is essentially Michael Pollan Lite. Bittman doesn’t dispute this; he openly acknowledges his predecessors in the field of food politics, claiming only to offer a condensed version of their work for the CliffsNotes masses.
What Bittman doesn’t point out is that his central argument already had a round of media and popular attention a generation ago. As Gary Taubes notes in Good Calories, Bad Calories, Americans last got anxious about our diet’s drain on our planet and ourselves back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb and Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 bestseller Diet for a Small Planet. This “anti-meat movement,” as Taubes calls it, sparked a wave of vegetarianism and activism on behalf of using our planet’s resources in responsible agricultural ways — much like now.
What’s the difference today? Back then, the argument was, “Eat less meat and no one will go hungry.” Share and share alike, in other words. Today, the argument is, “Eat less meat and stop global warming.” Free your steak, and planetary health will follow.
It’s hard to argue — then or now — with the claim that industrially raised meat is harmful to the animals involved, the environment, and the people who eat the (often drugged and diseased) animals. What’s less clear is that eating less meat is beneficial to our health. Admittedly, First Worlders generally indulge in meat-eating on a grand scale. But scientific studies of eating an all-meat diet have shown such diets to be perfectly healthy.
Bittman doesn’t make any explicit statements that his diet is the absolute healthiest way to eat, just that it works for him. But any book that stumps for a particular diet — what Bittman calls “lessmeatatarianism” or the “Vegan Until 6” diet — is implicitly advocating for a particular way of thinking about health.
Did Bittman lose weight (and become healthier, as he says) because he ate fewer animal products? Because he ate more greens and whole grains? Because he shunned refined flours and sugars? Or some combination thereof? It’s tricky to tell, and one man’s personal experience does not a scientifically controlled experiment make.
Plenty of people, obviously, choose to follow a flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet for ethical instead of health reasons. But a diet designed to help the environment or animals isn’t necessarily a diet designed for humans — and it’s all too easy, as at least one blogger has noted, to consume a dreadful diet in the name of saving the planet.
That said, Bittman’s suggested diet is far from dreadful. Eating more greens and whole grains is indisputably healthy, as is eating fewer industrial animal products. (Bittman also attacks junk food and “overrefined carbohydrates” as an evil on a par with eating too many animal products. He tries to sum this up as “the industrial meat and junk food complex,” but this lengthy catchphrase gets buried beneath the book’s heavier emphasis on eating less meat.) What it all boils down to on the stovetop is nothing more complicated than this: Add veggies. Use whole grains instead of refined. Cut back on the animal products as you see fit. And that’s pretty much it.
The cookbook section of Food Matters — 75-odd recipes, along with pantry lists and eating plans — offers a quick primer in the Bittman way of thinking in the kitchen: Grasp basic techniques and recipes, then improvise. Readers used to Bittman’s heftier cookbooks, with their hundreds of recipes, may be disappointed here at the slim pickings — and indeed, it might make more sense to pick up a copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and swap out refined products in that book for whole grains. (Bittman’s other cookbooks also tend to be better edited, avoiding such mistakes as calling couscous pasta a “whole grain” and claiming that chickens and pigs — omnivores both — are really herbivores.)
Another weakness of the book is its refusal to tell readers how to shop. Granted, as Bittman points out in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, labels change frequently and many labels are meaningless, so telling readers to buy, say, only organic products can quickly sound dated. But if you’re doing what Bittman says he wants you to do — reducing your consumption of animal products instead of excising them from your diet completely — you might want tips on how to buy, say, milk that doesn’t come from industrially raised cows. Bittman’s failure to do so makes it hard to escape the conclusion that Food Matters, despite its claims to the contrary, is really a book about why and how to become a vegan.
Nevertheless, Food Matters remains a brilliantly condensed guide to the depredations of industrial food production. And despite its lack of convincing health science, there’s no reason not to adopt Bittman’s less-meat (and more greens and whole grains) diet. Do so, and you’ll likely save money; you’ll certainly feel virtuous. And maybe you’ll even get more creative in the kitchen, just as Bittman intended.
Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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